Photo by Ryan Brohm via Iowa State Daily
Minister, professor and Sanskrit student, George Gillespie, counts as one of the early investigators to write about ‘light’ in lucid dreams. How do we experience light, and what do we make of the varieties of light, when lucidly aware? Check out this illuminating interview with an experienced lucid dreamer.
As I recall, you began lucid dreaming before the scientific evidence appeared in 1980. When did you first become lucid, and how did you explain it to yourself? What do you recall of your first lucid dream/s?
My lucid dreaming began with this dream:
As I came out of the jungle, I came to a missionary bungalow. It seemed to me that I was in either India or Africa. I told the couple who came to the door that I was only dreaming and I wanted to know where I was before I woke up. They said nothing. I went into the house and looked for maps that might indicate where I was. I found maps with names that could have been Indian, but I could not be certain. In another room, there were two old friends from my student days at seminary in Berkeley. I told them about my search. They did not respond. I thought at the time, ‘You know, I can just open my eyes and make you disappear.‘ However, I did not open my eyes. Then I woke up.
I had never heard of dreams in which the dreamer was aware of dreaming. I was impressed. That first lucid dream came to me spontaneously in 1975, when my wife and I were teaching in a theological college in the town of Jorhat in northeast India. By the end of 1976, I had 13 lucid dreams.
Lucid dreams came on their own, and I didn‘t know that they could be induced. Since, as far as I knew, I was the only person that had this gift, I felt that I should experiment with the dreams when I could to study the nature of dreaming. By my third lucid dream, I began to keep a written record of my experiences and have kept a journal since.
After 17 lucid dreams, I saw in the fourteenth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which I found in the college library, an article on dreams with a simple statement about two men who told of knowing they were dreaming. There were no further details. This was the first I knew that others had reported such dreams. In 1977, soon after moving from Jorhat to teach at another theological college in Hyderabad in South India, I found Ann Faraday‘s Dream Power (1972) in a book store in that city. So after 48 lucid dreams I had found a discussion of lucid dreaming for the first time.
As you went deeper into lucid dreaming and became more experienced, did you think that you were engaging your unconscious mind, or the larger Self? Or did it just seem like random, non-meaningful expressions? Where did the ideas and information come from?
I just felt that I was trying to understand the dreaming process without assumptions. If anything, I believed that what came to me came through unconscious processes, having heard of Freud. Neither the Jungian Self nor the Hindu Self came into my thinking at first.
Eventually, I began to have experiences of the fullness of light, which were intense religious experiences of the presence of God. The presence of God was understood within the experience itself, and not an interpretation after the event. Even then, after waking up, I did not accept them for some years as truly having been experiences of God.
I certainly always did accept what happened to be the presence of God during the experience itself, without question. Eventually, while awake, I took what I considered to be a step of faith, to accept them as having been what they always seemed to be. I had been engaging (to use your word) with God. However, I never thought, like some Jungian Christians seem to, that all dreams were from God. Unless, of course, in the sense that everything is from God.
In your article, “Near Death, Near Dream”, you note a lucid dream, which had common features of the Near Death Experience or NDE. Can you tell us what happened in your lucid dream?
That dream came to me in February of 1985, while I was living in Kolkata (It was called Calcutta then). In the dream, I was explaining to people about death. It was a serious talk, because of circumstances and possibilities that I cannot now remember. I said,
‘You will see both darkness and light at the same time,’ meaning that the people that I was talking to would pass through the border between darkness and light. After a transition within the dream, which I have forgotten, I was floating in darkness wondering what was happening. I was going through some kind of crisis that I did not understand. Although I was little aware of my body, I floated up.
Suddenly I floated up out of darkness into bright light, which, due to previous experiences, I happily remembered was the light of the presence of God. I understood that this time I was dying, that I had, in fact, died. The light was intense throughout the visual field, seeming to radiate from a level slightly above the level of my eyes. It appeared to originate from a small bright sun in front of me. Some rays started as tangent to the sun, whose outline was clear, and others radiated strictly from the sun‘s center.
I did not remember the circumstances of my death. I had some regrets about dying, but my resignation and acceptance were greater than my regrets. It was difficult to regret dying, since I could remember very little of my life (as happens also in dreams). I knew I was in the presence of God and I was spontaneously prayerful, calm, and very happy. While I floated in light, I repeatedly called, ‘Thank you, Father.’ I was not thanking for my dying, but for being in the presence of God and the light. The enjoyment of the fellowship with God overcame any regrets. After some time, I woke up gradually. I slowly became aware of my body in bed. I was tingling and very surprised to find that I was still in bed in Kolkata and not dead.
The fullness of light this time continued the themes of death, darkness, and light of the preceding dream, which had not been a lucid dream. Earlier experiences of this intense light with religious feelings had interrupted or grown out of lucid dreams. This time I became lucid upon seeing the light instead of in a dream before the coming of the light. Therefore, to be precise, this is the only coming of the fullness of light that did not begin, strictly speaking, within a lucid dream. In any case, when I saw the light, I didn‘t realize I was dreaming, which would make it a lucid dream. I believed (that is, I realized, as it seemed) that I had died. But I knew that I was in the familiar presence of the light that I had always experienced before as the outcome of a lucid dream.
This experience must have had a profound effect on you. For those reading this who are not familiar with the NDE experience, what elements from your lucid dream connect with the NDE experience?
There were twelve experiences of the fullness of light, as I call it, before this one, which, as it turned out, was my final experience of the fullness. This is the only one that I have thought of as near-death, because of characteristics similar to what I have read about near-death experiences:
I knew that I was in some kind of crisis and believed I had died. That I had died was not a conclusion that I had made, but a belief that just came to me. I floated up through darkness and then into brilliant light. It was the experience of the fullness of light, sunlike intense light throughout the visual field, and the feeling of the presence of God that I was already familiar with. I felt extreme reverence and joy in God. In my mind, my coming into the presence of God, the intense full light, and the knowledge that I had died was a convincing combination of being near death. I can only say that I knew that I was dying. I had no question about it. Even upon waking up I did not understand it to have been a dream.
After I woke up, I saw no evidence that I had been in any physical crisis or near death and pondered the meaning of the experience. I thought of possible alternative explanations.
- That I was really near death, but could not know afterward what the cause was.
- That to be near God is to be near death, in some philosophical, psychological, theological, or technical way.
- That the whole experience of dying was a metaphor for some serious change happening to me, a crisis of some sort that I could not explain. However, until that time, I always had a problem considering the fullness of light experience or even just the light itself to be a metaphor, because I believed the choice then would be between the fullness of light as metaphor or as a true experience of the presence of God.
- That the near-death part of the experience was simply a continuation from the earlier dream discussion of death. Since I had by that time come to accept my experiences as truly being what they seemed to be, I could not think of it as simply part of a dream.
Many years later I came to understand how that experience was both an experience of God in light and a metaphor. But, therein lies a story too long for this interview.